KOKOMO — Basketball is the Burrus’ family business.
Hailing from Denver, the patriarch, John, has been a head boys basketball coach in Indiana for the better part of the last two decades, leading his alma mater’s program, North Miami, for eight years before taking over Southwood’s program, where he will enter his seventh season this fall.
The oldest child, Joel, played for his father at North Miami, and later was an assistant coach under him at Southwood before serving as an assistant coach under Jace Thompson at Indiana University Kokomo. He is now the head boys coach at Lakeland Christian Academy in Winona Lake.
The middle child, Alicia, played college basketball at Huntington University, and was recently named the head girls coach at Traders Point Christian Academy in Whitestown.
Then, there’s the baby, Lael. Although a markedly talented basketball player, Lael opted to concentrate on volleyball after her sophomore year of high school. The decision, which seemed unlikely all those years ago simply due to the intense love her family shared for basketball, has paid great dividends for her. Now a junior in the IU Kokomo volleyball program, Lael has emerged as one of the best defensive players in the NAIA as the Cougars’ libero.
“I would definitely say that I have a basketball mindset, so that’s something crazy to think about because I’m playing college volleyball,” she said. “I think that’s something that’s maybe helped me in the longrun. My dad keeps the volleyball things to my coach, but he’s really good at the mental aspect of athletics, in general. Occasionally, he’ll throw in a comparison to basketball to help me see something.”
Lael entered last weekend with 382 digs, which was tied for the 19th most in the NAIA. Her defensive prowess has helped the Cougars bolt out of the gates to an 23-6 start to the season in the just the program’s third year of existence. One of the elder stateswomen of the program as a junior, Burrus’ leadership skills have also landed her the role of captain.
“Lael is an excellent representative of IUK, IUK athletics, and IUK volleyball,” coach Heather Hayes said. “She is a very well-rounded young lady who makes good decisions and leads by example both on and off the court. She gives her best effort each and every day and pushes herself to become a better player every time she steps on the court. These qualities make her an excellent captain.”
It all seems a bit unlikely for the girl who admitted to being the last person kept on the team during IUK’s initial team tryouts back in 2011, a team that finished the year 3-16. She made the team and helped the Cougar program get off the ground, something she had dreamed of doing. But, even so, it was always about more than volleyball for Lael.
“When I came here, I didn’t know what to expect my freshman year,” she explained. “One thing I wanted to focus on was yeah, I wanted us to be a successful program, but I really wanted good people and good athletes to come here. And, not necessarily for just the volleyball program, but for all the athletic programs. I love IU Kokomo and the campus. So, when I came here I thought it was important to try to be an ambassador and share my story. Now that we’ve gotten great coaching and great athletes in here, it’s just been awesome.”
The Cougars went 9-25 in their second year a season ago, and in the offseason hired Hayes to usher in a new era of volleyball as the program moved into its new downtown digs, Cougar Gym, just off the back of Memorial Gym. Although a strong recruiting class has had a huge hand in IUK’s rise to prominence, with three true veterans in the regular rotation, Hayes is also quick to point out how important Burrus’ leadership has been in terms of helping bridge the gap between the youth and the on-court success.
“Her leadership has been extremely instrumental, especially in my first six months on the job,” Hayes said. “Being a full-time teacher [at Frankfort High School], I am not able to be on campus as much as I would like to be, and I asked a great deal of her early on. She was like an assistant coach. She attended every event, helped organize recruit visits, or anything else I asked of her. I am very grateful for all she did last spring, and continues to do, to help further the program.”
A Burrus showing coach-like qualities on a team enjoying unprecedented success? That part of the story was pretty predictable.
“My family, no matter what I’m involved in, wants me to be successful,” Lael said. “That’s something I’ve always been blessed to have and always been thankful for, their support no matter what it is I’m involved in, whether it’s volleyball or basketball. They’ve always been there.
“[The volleyball program’s] success is something I didn’t know I’d be here to see or not,” she continued. “I feel so blessed to be able to have this experience. I’ve always been excited and thankful to be able to be a part of this. To be a part of those early successes has been amazing?”